Professor John McGavin – Q and A

Popular Professor John McGavin, of the University’s English Department, has retired from the University after forty years of inspiring students. Southampton Connects caught up with him to talk about his memories of teaching and researching at the University.

Tell us a little bit about your academic career and how you came to Southampton.

I started my career at Southampton thanks to the fact that, as far as I knew, in 1975 it was the only university in the UK with a job opening for a Medievalist!

The University paid my £28 train ticket from Edinburgh and put me up in a hotel and I felt that I owed it to them to give a good interview so they would not feel that the money had been wasted. I thought, “I’d better keep the cost down” so I had spaghetti and chips at the Students’ Union. I later heard a rumour that another interviewee had treated his friends to a slap-up meal with jelly and cake for pudding at the University’s expense!

In some ways thinking about how I could make the interviewers feel good about spending that money on me took the pressure off. It forced me to stop focusing on myself and made me about it from their side. I think this carried over into my teaching. It is so much less nerve-wracking when you approach things from the position of “How can I make this easier or better for the other person?”

You are also involved in the Speakers for Schools programme – what is so important about this initiative? Why did you get involved?

The Speakers for Schools programme was started by Robert Peston, and it has given me some amazing experiences. It’s been very satisfying to walk into these schools that have had difficulties or would like a fresh voice to speak to the children there.

I was always involved in outreach: it’s been one of my big priorities over the years.

We ran an Adult Education programme in the English department in the evenings and as a summer school, that was more or less free, for people who wanted to change their lives and try higher education. The course had an extraordinary success rate with 100 per cent of students referred to undergraduate study from the programme gaining a 2:1 or First class degree and some going on to do a PhD here.

Then as pressure to research increased, it put an end to the Adult Education programme. Universities became more competitive and they moved away from providing a social service in the way they had done. I’ve noticed this balance between the university as an engine of research and as an agent of social service oscillating with changes in government and policy over the years. The Speakers for Schools programme was a new outlet for me to promote the latter, and to raise aspirations in young people who might otherwise not consider university as an option.

What have you most enjoyed about teaching students at the University?

It is hard to identify what I have most enjoyed, because teaching has, for me, been a continual joy.

I have always found my students very responsive and open to learning. This is why I become so angry when students are referred to as “customers”. This is to pretend to value them at the same time as disempowering them. To refer to students as customers is to deny them the responsibility of being a partner in their own learning. Education is something that we, as human beings, do together to further develop ourselves.

At its best, it is students and lecturers working together in a common cause. Turning this into a “customer” relationship is to disempower one side and to be contemptuous of the other. It cuts out the joy of study.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I was at the bottom of my class as a schoolboy. I was the worst PhD student ever! I have always wanted to be an all-rounder, and I think I have managed to achieve that. I am proud of the times when I have had the perseverance to see something through when I didn’t believe I could do it.

I greatly enjoyed my time as Head of Department and Assistant Dean, but it is the kindness and generosity of my colleagues and students that has mattered most. It is that that will stay with me.

I am also proud of my students, many of whom have ended up doing great things. Academically speaking, the Regius Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University was a student of English here as was the current Head of Programmes here at Southampton English, though I actually owe more to them than they do to me.

You must have many memories of teaching students over the years at Southampton. Are there any particular moments that stick in your mind?

So many. I distinctly remember once eating a fly in a lecture. I was lecturing on Piers Plowman, and I saw this fly hovering by my spectacles and the next thing I knew it was in my mouth. I had to swallow it. I turned to the class and announced “It really cramps your style when you eat flies in a lecture.” Everyone fell about.

Often my students have said the most wonderful things. I remember a group of them turning up to a lecture in coats and mufflers. As you know it doesn’t really snow in Southampton, not properly. I called them all wimps and told them I used to walk miles into university in blizzards, with only an ounce of porridge in my stomach. From the back of the class someone shouted “Porridge? Luxury!” in a perfect imitation of the Monty Python Yorkshireman sketch.

It’s wonderful that you will be staying on in an Emeritus capacity. What other plans do you have for the future?

Well mainly to finish the research which I have been too busy being employed to complete!

The Research Excellence Framework makes it difficult to work on extended, big projects, and I have been trying to unearth the early drama records of Scotland for many years. I have been nearly finished for ten years now!

I also intend to enjoy gardening. Not long ago you couldn’t have paid me to do the gardening and my garden was an ecological disaster zone, but over the last five years I have got to grips with it and learned that it can be a real joy.

Any message or advice for your former students?

Imagination is the most important thing in the world – having the capacity to imagine things other than they are, to imagine how they look to others, to imagine questions other people might not think of, and solutions that others might not consider.

You have had the best possible training for this through your English degree, and through taking modules that were challenging and new.


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